September always feels like the New Year when it comes to yoga. The studios are filled again after a brief drop in attendance during the summer months.
In areas where there are a number of colleges, eager students come to the mat to learn the practice. It’s a time for new students to learn, but it’s always helpful for experienced students to go through a refresher on the basics of the practice. Once we close off our minds to learning, we close off to new ways to grow.
Also, many experienced students learned on their own, without one-on-one teaching, workshops or trainings. So here are some basics of the practice as a back to school yoga refresher.
What is at the floor makes a huge difference.
Whatever is touching the floor should be steady. It doesn’t matter if the pose is on the feet, on the belly or the back; whatever it is, the foundation needs to be steady. Even in poses where the focus is stretch (think: straddle leg fold), if your feet are slipping out from underneath you, all you’ll do is injure yourself.
Set your gaze in every pose.
The mind likes to wander when we try to rein it in. This is the challenge of meditation but also of our yoga practice. Plus, there’s so much to look at in class! The students, the teacher, the people outside (if you can see them) are all temptations of the mind. All these distractions only draw us further away from the task at hand; to breathe and focus.
Notice your breath and bring focus to it.
Without going into depth on the different styles of breathing in yoga practice, let’s just say that on the mat, the focus should be on the breath. We should refrain from belly breathing and breathe in and out through the nose with the mouth closed.
We can close off the back of our throats as we exhale and while this makes a “whispering sound,” we should try to refrain from over-emphasizing the exhale so it’s a distraction to our fellow practitioners (this used to happen a lot back in the day). I’ve essentially just described ujjayi breath, know that as a new student, it’s just important to bring attention to the breath before getting into different techniques.
Don't push your muscles to their fullest range.
Pushing your muscles to their fullest will most likely result in injury and less flexibility and comfort in the pose. This is a phenomenon of both new and more practiced students but often occurs for different reasons.
In the new student, they want to get flexible so they push in every pose to stretch to the fullest degree of the muscles’ range. In more practiced students, they can sometimes lose focus as they know what to expect and as a result may “sit” in their joints. This can also happen as we build more flexibility.
Pushing a muscle to it’s fullest range can result in pulling at it’s ends (origin and insertion) and can also create small tears in the muscle or even tendonitis.
Keep an open mind.
One of my greatest lessons as a new student was unlearning what I thought I knew in order to learn what I needed to know. That might sound rather convoluted but in some ways, I came into yoga with an athetic mindset and a knowledge of anatomy and I thought it’ll be easy to understand.
I had to learn to keep an open mind so I could be present and learn. While this required I let go of some of my ego, it freed me up so I could be open to learning. And, in fact, I learned a great deal over the years and still am learning!
Every class I teach, every class I take, I always pick up something new. As you get more experienced, you may look for more challenging classes and poses to take but never underestimate the power of a basics class. It’s often through the most basic instruction that we gain our deepest insights.
Most of all, practice in a way that is true to yourself, inspires you to continue and fills your heart with joy.